Devasuram: Slightly More Hopeful

It’s not super super the world is hopeless depressing.  But it’s not cheerful!  Although, in some ways, it is also a direct answer to Kireedam.  So I am glad I saw them back to back.

Kireedam, according to me and several commentators, is about the inescapability of violence, once it enters your life.  Devasuram, on the other hand, is about how you can actually escape it.  Through love, or art, or regret, or some sort of combination of all three.  So, yay!  Mohanlal is actually alive at the end!  It’s a MIRACLE!!!!

Or, it’s the power of love!  Or art or a woman’s tears.  Something.  Although before things can get better, the power of a woman’s tears or art or love, also make things get really really bad.

Halfway through this movie I thought to myself “Well, this is a lot of random happenings that don’t make any sense!  I’ll just keep watching, and maybe it will all come together.”  And it did.  Eventually.  But it took a while to get there, and I didn’t see for the longest time how it was all of a piece.  And then it hit me!  Pardes!  It’s Pardes!  Sort of!

Pardes took me a long time to understand too.  I mean, I got the whole “Shahrukh is the lowly sensitive servant boy who falls in love with the forbidden lady of the manner and vice versa” part of it.  “Mere Mehbooba”, and all that.  But I didn’t get how that really hung together thematically with the “Pardes” idea, or even how it really related to the first half of the film.

 

And then on watch, I don’t know, 5?  It all finally clicked!  The romance isn’t the important part.  The important part is that, in the first half, he serves as the marriage broker, convincing her family that she will have a happy life overseas with a family that will understand her values, and convincing the prospective groom that she is a modern and cosmopolitan young woman who can fit into his life in America.  And then in the second half, when it all falls apart and she is miserable, he takes responsibility for what has happened to her, because it was all his machinations in the first half that caused it.

The whole thing could have happened just as easily with a traditional aged family retainer.  Only no one would have watched that movie, so instead they had to bend over backward and come up with a reason that hot young Shahrukh would be in the position of a faithful family retainer, and thus the elaborate orphan-who-was-adopted-but-not-really-and-is-a-rockstar-and-has-a-garage-but-still-serves-as-dogsbody-to-everybody backstory.  And then they added the whole falling in love bit in the second half, along with the general guilt over putting together this clearly incompatible couple, as an additional motivation for Shahrukh to rescue Mahima from the horrible “Pardes”.

 

And then the same thing happens in this movie!  Only, again, it took me a while to realize it.  Actually, first, let me back up and run through the plot.  SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, and so on.

Mohanlal is a wealthy leader in the village.  He has a grumpy but loving old family retainer, and a group of young friends/thugs who do his bidding and also seem to really like/love him.  He is somewhat dissolute, drinking, fighting, and doesn’t seem serious about anything.  But, apparently he is already better than he used to be.  He used to spend the night with the local prostitutes, as well as drinking and fighting.  But then his mother left his home in protest, and he stopped womanizing.

Mohanlal has a lot of flaws, but he also has two big redeeming qualities.  He truly loves and cares for his friends and they truly love him in return.  And he is also serious about art.  The first time we see him, he has arranged for a troop of musicians to perform for him, and he treats them with courtesy and respect.  Later, we see him sing himself, in a beautiful and well-trained voice.

But he is also proud, and doesn’t see anything beyond his own desires.  So when he asks a local girl to dance as part of a temple show he is organizing, and she refuses, he gets angry.  And he pays off her father to have her dance for him on his private pavilion instead.  Which she feels as an insult to both herself and, more importantly, her art, and declares she will never dance again, cursing him by throwing her anklets at his feet.

Which is when his life gets really sucky all of a sudden!  This is the bit that felt very disconnected to me, that we go from getting to know his character, and the character of the dancing girl, to suddenly all sorts of unbelievable things happening to him at once.  He finds out that the man who raised him was not his biological father, and his mother dies before he can find out the name of his “real” father.  His village enemy gets the upper hand in their constant battles.  He needs money and suddenly can’t find anyone willing to give him a good price for his land.  And, finally, he is ambushed by his enemies and beaten half to death, leaving him a cripple.  All random and not really connected to each other!

But then the dancing girl finds out about his injuries, and that he has finally returned home to be cared for by his devoted servant, and starts coming to visit out of guilt.  And that’s when it all comes together!  There are 3 distinctive parts to his character, and each leads to the other as a result of his actions.

First, he is flawed, violent, selfish, disrespectful, but redeemable.  His flaws lead the dancing girl to curse him.  Second, now cursed, he is worn down, trying to simply do his best and defend his friends and those under his protection (which now includes the dancing girl because of his guilt over what he had previously done to her) despite the odds being stacked against him.  Third, due to the results of the curse, he learns to be a better person, a more peaceful person, with the help of the dancing girl, and finally becomes worthy of her love.

It was hard to see while watching it the moment that we moved from the first to the second part, and it wasn’t until the third part that I was able to see how they all fit together.  I think it was meant to be put together that way.  To show that we don’t always see the moment when we cross the line into unacceptable behavior.  And we don’t understand the cause of our life turning bad.  Until suddenly we do, and then we are able to go back and fix things.

While the majority of that message is on Mohanlal’s character, it is also on Revathi (the dancing girl).  She seems lovable, flawless, when we first meet her.  Her father is weak and a drunkard, but he loves his daughters.  Her younger sister is sweet and supportive of her dreams.  She herself has studied dance faithfully for years and, it is implied, the family savings and loans have all gone towards her studies.  Now, she is on the cusp of success, a famous teacher has invited her to come to his school in Delhi as a teacher and star student/performer.  So when she is invited to dance for the local temple, in a somewhat disrespectful manner, by Mohanlal’s goons who he has sent to talk to her on his behalf, she proudly refuses.

And when her father takes money without consulting her, and she is trapped into performing, she is clearly angry and resentful.  Even when she still believes it will be at the temple, an appropriate performing venue, she still resents it.  And when she finds it will be at Mohanlal’s private pavilion, she performs in anger, and then dedicates her performance to revenge (basically), by throwing her dancing bells at his feet and declaring she will dance no more.

While her curse makes Mohanlal lose his birthright, his money, his standing in the community, and finally even his power over his body, it also causes her to lose out.  Her father is unable to pay his debts and they lose their house and must move in with relatives.  Her in-law tries to molest her, and they are thrown out of that house, left to go into the care of Mohanlal and move into his mansion.  They are rescued by a distant relative who arrives back from Madras, with money, and pays their debts.  But now she is in the power of him, a nice man who wants to marry her but who she does not find appealing.  Finally, she refuses his proposal and instead insists on staying and caring for Mohanlal post-injury, which is when her life begins to change.  Just like Mohanlal, her initial flaws lead to a defining moment, and her life became much worse until she went back and fixed that initial error.

The biggest sin they both had was pride.  Mohanlal was proud in his power and position, and he used it to force her to perform for him.  She was proud of her talent and art, and that pride lead her to feel too good for a performance at the local temple, and too good for a private performance, and finally to declare she would never dance again.

The most sinful result of their pride, for both of them, was a disrespect to Art.  Which is very confusing, since there is all this talk about Art and Dance and how noble and worshipful it is and all that, but we are watching a highly trained dancer doing a performance for a movie!  How can it be respectful within the context of the film if we are seeing her do it for a movie?  Not in a temple or for a school performance?

But then as it went on, I think maybe that is kind of the point?  That it doesn’t matter where she dances or for whom, so long as her attitude is correct and they can appreciate her performance.  The first time she dances for Mohanlal at his private home, she feels it is an insult, that she is being made to dance “for” him, not to honor a God or for a public performance.  It has overtones of courtesans and naach girls.  And that is how Mohanlal is approaching it as well.  We already saw him bring in classical performers to his home once, and he treated them with respect and courtesy.  But this time, it is not the same.  He is enjoying his power over her, forcing her to do his bidding not because he wishes to see her dance, but because he wishes to humiliate her for her earlier refusal.

But the second time, she is still dancing on his private courtyard, in a private performance for him, the only thing that has changed is her attitude.  Now, she is doing it out of love, and joy.  And he is appreciating it in the same spirit.  And so this dance feels like a worship, not a desecration.

 

Which is also why it is okay that Revathi herself is dancing in this film.  Because while it may not be a temple, or a respectable school performance, it is something she is doing willingly, and which treats her art with respect.  Which is all that is necessary (the film is arguing), for it to be appropriate.

It is the art that eventually saves Mohanlal from the violence.  He is planning to leave the town with her, so that she can achieve her destiny in Delhi.  He is able to leave behind all his feuds and pride and possessions to let her achieve her higher purpose.

Of course, that’s not the end-end, because we do need one final fight scene.  But at least he is able to hold back!  It is the opposite of his fight scenes in Kireedam, where once his blood was up he couldn’t control what he did.  In this case, Revathi is taken, the one thing most likely to cause anger in him, and he returns to violence.  But, at the last minute in the fight, he is able to hold back and restrain himself when she begs him to.  So, actually, I guess it isn’t just the Art.  It’s also love, that he had someone who believed in him and stayed with him through it all, even when her own father threw her out, even though she had suffered before from his insults, even though she knew the secret of his birth and that he had no right to the wealth and respect he was given, she still loved him.

Speaking of which, I am positive they ripped the love theme in the background of their falling in love scenes from this:

 

I really appreciated how they came to fall in love.  That it was something that happened slowly, after a series of small movements on both parts.  He disrespected her horribly, and then tried to make up for it by giving her family sanctuary.  But she held onto her anger, even after seeing the respect he gave her, and the love his friends and servants had for him.  Only finally breaking when she learned that her “curse” had caused him to be near death.  And then it was a long period of visits and company and getting to know him with her blinders off and his armour worn through before they could finally fall in love.  And, of course, she proposed to him.  Which is always nice.

Let’s see, what else?  Oh!  Her poor sister!  I wish they had handled that better.  Her little sister ends up marrying the wealthy relative instead of her, thereby clearing the family debts and making her father happy.  Just like in Parineeta!  Except, in Parineeta, they show that Raima Sen was really in love with Sanjay, so it wasn’t a sacrifice at all, and Sanjay came to love her after marriage, so everything worked out great.  But in this, the younger sister was just kind of miserable and accepting of her fate.  Which, why even do that?  What would it hurt to show her happy in her marriage?

(Really, I think Raima got the better deal.  Who would you rather marry, volatile artist Saif or steadfast businessman Sanjay?)

Innocent (I think?) played the old family retainer, and he was wonderful.  It was a great role, he got to be the complaining funny servant, but he also got to have moments of depth and caring, when you saw why Mohanlal kept him around, and why he stayed.  I am sure I have seen him in other movies before this, but I think this was the first time he played something a little deeper than the “comedy uncle” kind of role.

I recognized Revathi too, which means she must have a very distinctive face, because I looked at her filmography, and I have seen maybe one other movie with her in which she only had a supporting role (Alia’s mother in 2 States).  But she was wonderful in this, very strong and made a character who, on paper, would come across as a little bit of a goodie two shoes into a very likable person.

And now I am going to watch something cheerful, by golly!  I just got a HUGE order of DVDs, so I will have to dig through them and see if I can find something actually fun.

 

9 thoughts on “Devasuram: Slightly More Hopeful

  1. Devasuram is one of my favorite movies.Managalassery Neelakantan is in fact based on a real life person who was said to have a more colorful life than was shown in the movie.Do stay away from the horrible sequel.I think the movie did a fine job of showcasing the Deva(divine) and the Asura(demonic) aspects within a person.And yes,so much pride! He’s so proud of his illustrious father and his ancient family name ‘Mangalassery’.Take that away and what’s left? For a Malayalee, his/her identity is pretty much wrapped in the House’s name.Everybody is obsessed about the blood lines.Which is why adoption outside the family was not that popular before the previous generation or so.

    But I’m digressing.Revathy is not the first person who feels his wrath unjustly.The Gulf- returnee son of an old servant who dares to ask about buying one of his properties is insulted horribly.At the end all his sins come home to roost.

    Revathi is simply magnificent when she states that pride and self-respect is not the prerogative of powerful men like him.She seems to believe firmly in the adage ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’.She didn’t forgive him even after he apologizes to her.She pretty much does as she thinks is right.Which is very refreshing to see in a conservative heroine.Even her father does not dare castigate her for her oath which essentially robs them of their livelihood.

    The ‘first’ official performance of a dancer is very special.It is supposed to take place at a temple -somewhere auspicious.Mohanlal robbed her of that opportunity forever.That’s why she’s so offended.

    Innocent as the old family retainer and unofficial paternal figure to the hero did a great job.The fact that the hero’s father had died when he was very young could be the reason Neelakantan was in so much awe of him and why he kept on saying that he’s so-and-so’s son.The actor playing Revathi’s father is Nedumudi Venu and was in Thenmavin Kombathu and Charlie.

    Like

    • thanks for the background! It took me a while to realize that Mohanlal was the leading figure of the neighborhood, because he was so casual about it. Like, wasn’t dressed in a formal lungi all the time, or ordering around a housefull of servants, or forcing people to treat him with respect. So I think I missed how proud he was of his background at first.

      But I’m guessing that was kind of the point? That he is this seeming lowlife rowdy, hardly better than the gang he keeps on his payroll, but he can act like that because he is protected by his position?

      Like

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